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Afghan Security Conference Focusing On Whether To Talk To Taliban

  • Ron Synovitz

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid speaks to a journalist in the mountains of Helmand Province last month.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid speaks to a journalist in the mountains of Helmand Province last month.

Delegates from Central and South Asia have gathered in Dushanbe -- together with a senior official from the U.S. State Department -- for talks on how regional cooperation can improve Afghanistan's security situation.

The talks, hosted by Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, have included a debate on whether the Afghan government should negotiate with Taliban fighters -- and possibly bring some former Taliban into the central government.

As delegates discussed the merits and shortcomings of such a policy, an official from the U.S. State Department was able to gauge the views of representatives from Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

Indeed, the two-day conference in Dushanbe is a timely event. It comes as advisers to U.S. President-elect Barack Obama consider a possible new regional strategy for the war in Afghanistan.

"The Washington Post" newspaper quotes unnamed Obama advisers as saying that the new strategy could include talks with Iran. They say it also could include support for negotiations between Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government and "reconcilable" members of the Taliban.

'Add To Taliban's Influence'

It is still early to say how the Obama administration might coordinate with Iran on Afghanistan. The United States and Iran have not had formal diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, in which American hostages were held for more than a year.

But Iran's ambassador to Tajikistan, Aliasgari Sherdust-Safiri, made it clear in Dushanbe that Tehran is opposed to the idea of negotiations with the Taliban.

"[Negotiations with the Taliban] would not only bring no results, it would also add to the Taliban's renewed influence and official power -- as well as extremism in the whole region," he said. "If at one time the Taliban existed only in Afghanistan, now – in political terminology – we also talk about the Taliban movement in Pakistan. I mean, the Taliban have expanded beyond Afghanistan. And now they are being considered as a movement in Pakistan, too."

Sherdust-Safiri also told the conference that Iran has been hosting and dealing with Afghan refugees for more than two decades. For that reason, he says, the security situation in Afghanistan continues to directly affect Iran.

The Iranian ambassador also called for Western military forces to leave Afghanistan, saying the country needs to conduct free elections without any influence from the West.

Abdughaffor Levol, chief of the Center for Regional Studies in Afghanistan, told the Dushanbe conference that the Taliban has become a complicated network of local groups and foreign terrorists who have different levels of commitment to hard-line Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

'Only Come For War'

Levol says Karzai's government has always left open the possibility of talks with moderate Afghan Taliban fighters -- those who are Afghan nationals and who joined the movement because they were dissatisfied with the country's economic or security situation.

"It is the Afghan government's policy that it always negotiates with those Afghans who accept Afghanistan’s conditions -- those who accept Afghanistan's constitution," he says. "The government talks with them and even gives them shares in political power. But there are people and groups that came from the other side of the border. They only come for war. They are [foreigners] or work for [foreigners] and they don't want to negotiate. And I don't think negotiations with them would have any benefit."

Abdulvohid Shamolov, the head of the Tajik president's Strategic Research Center in Dushanbe, told RFE/RL on the sidelines of the Dushanbe meeting that the idea of negotiating with the Taliban seems paradoxical.

But Shamolov says he thinks it is possible for moderate Taliban to be brought into some kind of power-sharing government in Kabul. And he says he thinks that idea will be discussed at length in Dushanbe on November 12.

"The United States and the [NATO] alliance have said they will fight terrorists," Shamolov says. "So if we call the Taliban terrorists, the questions arises: How do we fight the Taliban and, at the same time, include them in the government? You get a logical conundrum, a paradox.

"Nevertheless, during our second session, I think this question will come up and will be proposed as an alternative," he continues. "It might be possible there would be a coalition government and as part of that coalition government it might be possible to include some of the Taliban. But it's just a proposal at this point."

Cutting Off Land Routes

Shamolov also said there were lessons to be learned from the experience of Soviet forces who fought in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

Judging by the attacks by Taliban fighters along Afghanistan's external links and ring road routes this year, part of the Taliban's strategy is to make it difficult for NATO forces to resupply themselves by overland routes.

It was a problem that Soviet forces also had faced as they clustered troops in urban areas and relied on land routes for resupply.

Shamolov says NATO forces should consider that the Taliban is trying to repeat the strategy of Afghan mujahedin fighters in the 1980s.

"At previous conferences like this -- and last year it was in Berlin -- I took part and said, 'You need to take into consideration the experience of the Soviet military [in Afghanistan]," Shamolov says. "Why are you making the same mistakes we did'?"

The views of the Asian delegates at the conference were carefully noted by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs George Krol.

For his part, Krol reiterated the conclusions that already have been reached by senior officials in the Pentagon, as well as advisers to President-elect Obama: that some kind of deals need to be made with moderate Taliban in order to gain their support for Karzai's government.

"Of course, the situation there can be solved not through military actions [alone] but through an economic and political settlement in order to strengthen the trust of the Afghan population," Krol says. "It is a very important issue not just for Afghanistan but for all the countries in the region."

RFE/RL correspondent Barot Yusufi in Dushanbe and RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.

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